As a social worker, Saskatchewan’s new sex-ed policy terrifies me
On Oct. 20, Bill 137 received royal assent in Saskatchewan, after months of pushback from students, teachers, parents and many organizations, including the Saskatchewan Children’s Advocate and the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. The bill, entitled “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” permits parents to withdraw students from classes with sexual health content and requires parental consent for schools to use “new gender-related preferred name or gender identity.” The bill enforces the provincial government’s controversial pronoun policy, which was thrust upon the education system earlier this year. In order to see this controversial bill through, the provincial government invoked the notwithstanding clause, a rarely invoked judicial tool that overrides sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The pronoun policy was also accompanied by another directive to boards of education, which banned involvement with third-party organizations that provide sexual health education. This ban includes educators from local and national LGBTQ2S+ organizations, sexual assault centres and sexual health centres. While staff from the Saskatchewan Health Authority and government ministerial employees are permitted in classrooms, this strips teachers across the province of desperately needed expertise. When this news first broke, I was devastated, as I immediately foresaw the long-term, detrimental impacts of such a policy. I am a registered social worker in Saskatchewan. My professional experiences have taught me that sexuality is the source of some of society’s most complex social problems. From gender-based violence, to unplanned adolescent pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted blood-borne infections (STBBIs), the impacts of substandard or non-existent sexual health education are far-reaching and damaging. The health education curriculum in Saskatchewan has not been updated since 2009, which means that critical content on LGBTQ2S+ identities, consent, social media and pornography are not discussed, leaving students unprepared for their rapidly evolving social worlds. Unless teachers are well informed on emerging topics in sexuality education, students may not be afforded the opportunity to consider these influences critically. Young people in Saskatchewan feel the ramifications of inadequate sex-ed. According to the federal government, our province has some of the highest rates of STBBIs in the country, high rates of interpersonal violence and very high teen pregnancy rates. This doesn’t have to be our norm. In the same way that inadequate sexual health education can have lasting, adverse consequences, the impacts of high-quality, comprehensive sexual health education are also far-reaching, protective and preventive for young people, creating positive long-term outcomes for both individuals and society as a whole.
This line of thinking is bolstered by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, as both consider high-quality sexual health education to be a human right. I am uniquely positioned to assess the impacts of this policy because I have been working in the field of sexual health for a decade, eight years of which I spent as a third-party educator in classrooms across Saskatchewan. I have presented to more than 10,000 students and answered more than 4,000 questions about sex. From the hours I spent with students in the classroom, it was clear that they knew about safer-sex practices, but didn’t always follow them. For example, knowing how to use a condom implies that an individual is sexually experienced, which bolsters traditional masculinity, but threatens traditional notions of femininity. Relationship security is equally complicated. Research shows that low levels of relational security and high levels of relational commitment are both given as reasons to not use a condom. Individuals in relationships with low levels of security might worry that asking to use a condom will scare a potential partner off—conversely, someone in a highly committed relationship might believe that same request implies distrust or infidelity. These are deeply nuanced interactions that need to be navigated carefully. Gender, race, sexual orientation and other identity factors can also impact the ways that young people navigate their sexual experiences.
When it comes to complex interpersonal relationships, unequal power dynamics put marginalized young people in a precarious position. Those who have less power because of their identity are less likely to advocate for safer-sex practices, fearing it may threaten their safety or the security of the relationship. I heard this all of the time in classrooms—kids are worried about setting boundaries because they might alienate their peers or partners. We see this impact play out through demographic data on sexual health—marginalized people have poorer health outcomes than their peers. Non-profit organizations across the country have identified that LGBTQ2S+ youth face higher rates of STBBIs, gender-based violence and homelessness. It is important that we do not attribute these outcomes to individuals, but instead see them as a reflection of a society that does not prioritize their well-being. This is not an accident—vilifying sexual health education is an easy dog whistle for political parties looking to espouse traditional values to constituents. Let’s face it, young people who prioritize consent, respect bodily autonomy and nurture critical thinking skills that challenge gender norms and power dynamics are a threat to the status quo—and to oppressive institutions. Bill 137 and associated policies are prime examples of political manoeuvres that are ill-informed and detrimental to the health and futures of young people in Saskatchewan.
In order to be effective, sexual health education needs to be delivered by educators who are responsive to the complex needs of adolescents. Educators must be prepared to discuss sensitive topics with care. They must be mindful of the tangible impacts of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. They also need to be receptive to youth input, responsive to a rapidly changing social world and humble enough to know that they won’t have all of the answers all of the time. This is a tall order for teachers, who are already over-burdened and stretched beyond their limits, attempting to keep a sinking public education system afloat as the provincial government strips away funding, support and autonomy. Third-party educators who have expertise in some of these more nuanced conversations, like LGBTQ2S+ identities, sexual violence and healthy sexuality, are a resource and a buoy of support to teachers, who recognize the critical nature of this content. Organizations like Saskatoon Sexual Health, the Saskatoon Sexual Assault & Information Centre and UR Pride have supported the needs of students in classrooms across the province, particularly those who are often marginalized by mainstream content, which fails to attend to their unique identities and experiences in the world. It is a devastating loss to deprive our classrooms of this expertise. While some impacts of this decision will be felt immediately, the long-term outcomes are a story that will unfold over time—unfortunately for many LGBTQ2S+ young people, it seems like the government of Saskatchewan has lost the plot.